Review: Sin by Wajida Tabassum, translated by Reema Abbasi
Wajida Tabassum is barely known outside Urdu literary circles. Her best known short story Uttaran (Cast Offs) — about the vindictive fury of unequal female friendships and the weaponisation of sex — has appeared in translation in English in several anthologies. It was made into a soap opera in 1988 (the jealousy theme was also coincidentally the premise of a popular drama of the same name on Colors TV). And most famously, it was adapted by Mira Nair for the first half of her 1996 film Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love — the characters of Indira Varma and Sarita Choudhury were based on Uttaran’s Chamki and Shahzadi Pasha.
The plot: Shahzadi Pasha and the daughter of her wet-nurse, Chamki, grow up together, exceedingly aware of the difference in their status — the spoilt Pasha revelled in deriding the prettier Chamki who was condemned to wear her hand-me-downs. The night before Pasha’s wedding, a resentful Chamki sleeps with the groom as payback. After the wedding, in between peals of laughter, she tells Pasha, “All my life, I have lived with your cast-offs, but now you too will forever live with something I have used.”
Tabassum wrote explosive semi-erotic stories in Dakhani (best known as the Hyderabadi dialect of Urdu—although its variations are spoken across the Deccan states—where, for example, nahin, as in no, is nakko and kyun, as in why, is kaiko). The stories are set in the declining aristocratic world of old Hyderabad or around middle-class morality in a society shifting after the annexation of the princely state. Tabassum’s women use sex and guile to navigate oppressive domestic spaces. They swear often and freely, their conversations are ribald, sex and desire plainly laid out.
Tabassum “is startlingly clear in what she portrays — all that is sin to others is salvation to her women,” writes Reema Abbasi, a Karachi-based journalist who has translated 19 of Tabassum’s stories and an essay for the first time in English — Sin is a collection of some of her boldest work.
Tabassum, one of the highest paid writers of her time, began writing in the late 1950s and produced 27 books over three decades. As her stories “flowed to the masses, she faced death threats and mobs took to the streets to torch the offices of her publishers,” Abbasi writes.
In Hor Upar! (Up, Further up!), my favourite story in the collection, a wife settles the score with her philandering husband by beating him at his own game. Pasha Dulhan simmered like an ember at her husband’s sexual liaisons with the maids and the flagrant display of his infidelity: “Every man strays but mine throws it in my face. He says, ‘Why ask if you know?’” Tired of fighting, she engages a young boy from the kitchens to massage her feet, egging him on to move up her legs until “there was no space left to go ‘up, further up’ anymore.”
This is a good translation. For the most part Abbasi is able to capture the essence of the stories — especially their grand setting and the emotional landscape. For instance, in Lungi Kurta (The Exchange), which follows a setting and themes similar to Hor Upar (quite a few of Tabassum’s stories share plot lines), Abbasi is able to replicate the delicacy of feeling from Urdu: “Although she wanted to break everything in sight, Shabnam knew that a fight would ease the burden of his guilt. She held on to her violent passions like fractures in a piece of crystal — no conversation, no conflict and no more promises.”
But I reckon I would have enjoyed the stories considerably more if I hadn’t gone looking for some of them online first. The translator’s note had not, could not have, adequately prepared me for the piquant use of language in Dakhni Urdu.
(There’s a great reading of Hor Upar narrated by, according to the description, film-writer Naeem Shaikh (Naeem-Ejaz), on YouTube where it is accompanied by very cringey visuals.)
In the original, there’s depth in the details as a young Rehmat massages Pasha Dulhan’s feet — an uneasiness to the provocative, erotic, scene:
“‘Zara aur upar!’
Woh sehem-sehem ke maalish karta, dar-dar ke Pasha ka mooh taakta. Tel mein ungliyaan chapad kar woh gharaara darte-darte zara upar khiskaata ki kahin sajar, itlaas ya kamkhaab ke gharare ko tel ke dhabbe badnuma na bana de.”
The last sentence here — about Rehmat’s distress at the thought of tainting with oil Pasha Dulhan’s fine Kamkhaab silks (the fabric, Kimkhwab in Persian, translates to “a little dream”) — is a metaphor hinting at the underage servant boy’s exploitation at the hands of his mistress.
The nuance of abuse in “dhabbe badnuma na bana de” — to be made grotesque, unsightly by sullying — is missing in Abbasi’s translation:
“Eyes fixed on her face, chest swelling in concert with rapid breaths, apprehensive oil-drenched hands shifted the beautiful brocade of her gharaara with the fear of tarnishing them,”
The feverish urgency between the characters, here and elsewhere, is also somewhat diluted. But the stories retain mischievousness and are quite smutty even in translation. In Rozi ka Sawaal (The Cost of Survival), a prostitute accuses another of being jealous of her large breasts “with your insect-bite knots.”
In Naulakha Haar (The Necklace), the last and most scandalous story in the collection, young women at a haldi ceremony exchange naughty, dirty riddles: “It twists and turns, but will slip if you take it in your hand.”
The answer: a hand fan. But here, Abbasi includes transliterations of the riddles in the text (warning: the hand fan is pretty filthy in Urdu): “Asalta masalta, haath mein lo toh phisalta.” And so, early on the story, it sets the tone for the shocking story to follow. I would have liked a smattering of transliteration in a few other stories as well.
Not all the stories are sexual. Many take on different shapes of love — sweet, unconditional, codependent, self-sabotaging. Faakhta (The Dove) is a romantic story about a woman using domesticity to win over a man. Dhanak ke Rang Nahin (The Rainbow has no Colour), one of Tabassum’s most popular stories at the time it was published and more complex and elaborate than others, is about a single, middle-aged man, weighed down by responsibility and domestic squabbles, and his encounter with love.
At the heart of Sin, is Meri Kahaani (My Story), an essay Tabassum wrote at 24, four years into her writing career in 1959. It’s a portrait of the writer as a self-assured young woman and, I think, requisite reading for writers in general. Deftly — it’s not long at all — she delineates the beginnings of her life and love for fiction (“People called me a witch and a black cat, which sank my sense of self” and so, growing up, books became “a refuge and my friends”). She also defends her work, comments on her peers, articulates the fear of insignificance and reveals her dreams.
Tabassum was born in Amravati where she was raised in impoverished circumstances by a strict grandmother. “In 1947, the Partition ripped through us. We moved to Hyderabad Deccan, where our misery swelled like the sea before a storm,” she writes.
But she found success pretty early on. Her stories were widely published in Shama, the popular Urdu film and literary magazine run by the Dehlvis (the family of Sadia’s Dehlvi, the Delhi-based writer who died in 2020). A profile of the publication in The Indian Quarterly noted that “Some writers, like Wajida Tabassum, arguably owe their careers to the initial interest created by being ‘discovered’ by Shama’s publishing arm.”
After a few of her stories were published, her relatives, who had abandoned them during the family’s difficulties, showed up in horror. “They flew into feral hysteria and said, ‘Wajida Begum has left Ismat [Chughtai] behind. Can these stories be read by noble girls?’”
In the post Partition period, many women writers — especially Tabassum — were influenced by Ismat Chughtai’s portrayal of middle-class women in domestic spaces. Chughtai had been bold, Tabassum was brazen. Although she lived in purdah for many years, she did not skirt around the sexual excesses, escapades and exploitation of her characters.
Hor Upar is a hat tip to Chughtai’s Lihaaf (The Quilt). Lihaaf, for which Chughtai was charged with obscenity in 1944, depicted queerness in an aristocratic household: Nawab Sahab ignored his wife for young boys with “willowy waists” in “translucent kurtas, their well-formed legs in tight-fitting churidars.” And Begum Jaan finds release and pleasure in the arms of her maid (and masseuse) Rabbu as “her tiny, puffy hands moved dexterously over Begum Jaan’s body — now at her waist, now at her hips, then sliding down her thighs.” This movement is referenced in Hor Upar with Rehmat massaging Pasha Dulhan’s legs as, writes Abbasi, “Hands gradually ascend, causing a slow rise to the crescendo.”
Tabassum claimed that she wrote what she saw, that her work was an honest depiction of the injustices around her. But it outraged many stalwarts of old Hyderabad who dismissed it as lies, pornography, defamation. They called her a “zakhmi sherni” (wounded lioness) and dismissed her work as the sour grapes of an outsider. But Tabassum wasn’t such an outsider: “It is absurd — and some consider it vile — to reveal that our mother came from a royal family,” she writes in Meri Kahaani.
Eventually, Tabassum moved to Bombay, the culture capital of the Seventies, where film and literary circles coalesced — Chughtai, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Krishan Chander, Akhtar ul Iman, were among the many others who worked at this confluence writing screenplays, dialogues, lyrics. In Bombay, Tabassum wrote ghazals, nazms and modern fiction — I found sublime examples of each, hiding online.
A few of her ghazals have been rendered by Jagjit Singh, the most beloved among them: Kuch na kuch toh zaroor hona hai, saamna aaj unse hona hai. There’s a video of a 1991 mushaira at Bombay’s Rang Bhawan, the historic open theatre at Dhobi Talao, which closed down in 2013, where Tabassum charmed her enraptured audience with a nazm on love titled Insaaf about a man tormented by the irresistible smile of the beautiful woman who insists upon charming him.
Sin is a starting point, an introduction to Tabassum’s mysterious body of work that is beautiful, important, effervescent and waiting to be rediscovered. It’s what Tabassum wanted:
“I dream. The mind travels to a distant future, towards a time when the stories will be read and remembered as works of literature. In this fierce chase, I have also felt a double-edged sword hanging over my heart. If it fell, my work would die. These years were hostage to this fear and mine was a wary walk on a barbed footpath. I could not perish,” she wrote in Meri Kahaani.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.